The term “self-esteem” means different things to different people. For this article, think about self-esteem as how you feel about yourself. With this definition, it is the same thing as what we call ‘self-image.’
Origins of your self-image
One of the most important influences on how you see yourself is your caregivers. When you were born, your mother was your most powerful early influence. Researchers used to talk about babies learning self-regulation. Today, therapists talk about mutual regulation, which means that mothers influence their babies, who in turn influence their mothers (if you were born into a family with no women or your father was equally involved in your early care-giving, his early influence would be just as powerful).
When you began to think (which is around age one, give or take), you only had thoughts about yourself. In fact, the whole world was “me.” There was no other. You were completely responsible for how you were treated. As you grew, you began to differentiate me from other, and as you did, your self-evaluation was based on the people around you. By the age of 5 or 6, your core beliefs about yourself were fairly set by your caregivers, other significant adults in your household, and siblings.
By 12 to 14 or so, when you were developing your sexual identity, messages from caregivers –plus peers – were influencing your beliefs about what it means to belong. These beliefs are perhaps the second most powerful set, after your core beliefs, in terms of how you see yourself today.
What’s your “self-talk?”
These two sets of beliefs – core and belonging – are most influential when it comes to the way you think about yourself. From them, every thought you have about yourself – that you’re fine the way you are or that you’re not, inferior or arrogant, motivated or lazy, smart or stupid, and so on – become the basis for how you perceive your actions and reactions to the world around you.
However, until you have fully developed your own identity, you are guided by what are known as introjections – beliefs that you swallowed whole about yourself from your caregivers, peers, and society about what it means to be you. These myriad voices are not you. Your core self – which should be based on self-acceptance – gets clouded over with negative thinking when the committee (the dialog in your head that consists of your caregivers, peers, and society) has the strongest influence on how you see yourself. For example, when you make a mistake, are you supposed to be punished? Are you stupid because of it? Or, when you make a mistake, do you forgive yourself and strive to learn and grow from it?
Changing your self-talk
Because the committee has been a part of you for a very long time (and because I as many other therapists are not fans of “getting rid” of anything that’s part of you) I prefer an additive approach. In other words, when you make a negative self-appraisal, think about what you could add to your way of looking at your actions.
For example, let’s say that you’ve been drinking alcohol for a long time. Let’s also say that it has become a problem. It is a good probability that you see yourself as weak-willed or somehow damaged because you can’t stop.
There’s no way to get rid of that thought. But perhaps there is a way to add a voice to the committee: a voice that says, “Maybe I’ve developed a problem with drinking because it is encouraged by so many aspects of our culture, contributed by a genetic predisposition, a reinforcing influence from my friends, and a coping strategy of not facing my problems head on.”
Since I’m a psychotherapist, of course my bias is to tell you that if you have a negative self-image to talk with a therapist. However, part of this bias comes from the fact that a therapist and client have a special kind of relationship. You should both be sitting in your respective chairs and meeting on a regular schedule in the therapist’s office – which make a therapy relationship artificial, in a way, but it is still a relationship.
And because a therapist is an authority figure – one who’s trying to help you feel better about yourself – your therapist’s voice can become stronger over time amidst your negatively predisposed committee. Your therapist should also be holding up a mirror to your thinking; by understanding you and indicating that understanding by reflecting back to you what you’re saying, you can become more aware of the way you think about yourself and where these thoughts came from. And once you understand where these thoughts and beliefs originated, it’s possible for you and your therapist to put them back where they belong – to caregivers, peers, teachers, etc. – and to separate “me” from “not me.”
Perhaps more importantly, your friends, co-workers, and partner hold up a mirror to the way you think. In essence, how you’re being treated can be a reflection of your thoughts. You can use the way you’re being treated as information about how you see yourself. If you’ve found yourself around toxic people, perhaps it is time to “weed-and-feed;” weed out those who don’t give anything back or are a negative influence, while strengthening relationships who are not only supportive but genuinely care about you.